Lorelei Kelly on Strengthening Democracy at the Top and the Bottom



Newsletter #225 — March 31, 2024


On March 11, 2024, I (Heidi Burgess) talked with Lorelei Kelly, currently the Research Lead on the Modernization of Congress in the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University. She held several related positions before that, leading the Resilient Democracy Coalition at the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation at Georgetown University, and the Smart Congress Initiative with the Open Technology Institute at New America. She also spent a decade leading a bipartisan study group in the House and Senate called "Security for New Century." The full interview is available here.


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How All the Efforts to "Fix Congress" Are Related — And What They Have and Haven't "Fixed"

As I explained to Lorelei at the beginning of our conversation, we have been hearing a lot about several efforts to "fix Congress," the most notable being the House of Representatives'  Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress and the related, but non-governmental, Rebuild Congress Initiative.   I wondered how her efforts were related to those two.  She answered by explaining that she provided support to the House Select Committee on Modernization. 

The Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress started in 2019, and it ran for two sessions, which was an achievement all on its own. Usually, select committees don't get extended. This one was extended for four years with 12 members each time.

It created a group of bipartisan members whose goal was to help Congress update and reform itself to better serve the American people. The Fix Congress Cohort that exists now (and also existed then) is how I've worked with these other folks in the Rebuild Congress world.

I am part of a civil society cohort working adjacent to the institution that philanthropy funded to support the Committee and the staff, so that they could be successful and optimize their time and work on implementing the recommendations that they created. The heavy lift for Congress has been done. It passed 202 recommendations, all bipartisan, mostly unanimous.

And the good news, under the radar screen that people don't see, [is that part of Congress actually does work effectively. On the outside], it looks like a three-ring circus right now. But under the radar screen, there's a huge amount of work being done to reform and transform the sort of information architecture of Congress so that it can better adapt and be present and defend public goods in the modern world.  

Lorelei's particular interest is bringing Congress into the digital information age.  Having worked in and out of Congress for 23 years, she observes that "it [Congress] has diminished itself by not keeping up with the executive branch, the private sector, or the media in its ability to be present in the modern world."

That is why she has been working on a variety of initiatives to help the House, primarily, address its communication technologies and abilities so that they can communicate better both internally and externally, and actually do the work they are Constitutionally expected to do.

Congress right now isn't doing its deliberative process. Over the last 20 years, what you've seen internally is a consolidation of both recognition and power and voice into the party leadership. And both parties have done it. They've consolidated actual policy staff into communications staff. And I think what's happened overall is that the incentive system for a member of Congress now is performance, not governing. And I think that is obvious to people when you look.

Things aren't going to committee and then to a conference and then working out the details and then to a vote. Very often, you have a complete skipping over of the deliberative process, where things will get taken straight to the floor. There's a lot of old archaic processes and rules that are being used right now to diminish the deliberative process, which is how the rank and file have a voice — not just the American people, but regular members who might be younger or new or not a party favorite. Essentially, the workhorses, the rank-and-file workhorses of Congress are really the ones who I think suffer the most. Because they're there to do a job. And they exist in both parties. But they're not the ones who get the attention.

And that's part of the media ecosystem that we live in. It's not a healthy, balanced, civic serving media system right now. We need to change that. So when I talk about Congress modernizing, we also need a lot more media reform so that people are fed a more regular diet of nonpartisan, nonprofit, public-serving information about how we govern ourselves.

The Modernization Committee tried to address Congressional dysfunction in a variety of ways. First, it modeled another way of doing business.  It was made up of twelve members, six each from each party.  They sat around a round table, not in rows, and were seated next to people from the other party, so when they wanted to comment on something being said, they were talking to someone on the other side, not someone in their own echo chamber.  They changed the speaking sequence so that most of the discussion was the witnesses (who were also sitting at the same table, not removed on a dais), talking about what they really knew about.  Unlike other committees, the Modernization Committee had a unified staff, meaning one set of staff people for everyone, rather than separate staff for Republicans and Democrats. 

They all sat together in the same room, they shared everything all the time. So it really dissolved the party lines. They [party identities] weren't significant in any of it, which was a beautiful thing to behold over the last four years.

In addition to changing committee procedures and thereby illustrating how much more could get done if all committees were to operate in that way, the Modernization Committee developed recommendations regarding:

  • The recruitment, empowerment, and retention of an experienced, skilled, and diverse Congressional staff 
  • Building a more civil and collaborative Congress 
  • Strengthening lawmaking and oversight capacity
  • Building a technologically modern Congress and modernizing district offices

Many of these have already been implemented; most of the others are "in process." Few have been rejected outright, and most of the time that happened, it was simply because the issue had already been dealt with in another way, so the recommendation was no longer necessary.

Community Grants

One of the ways that the Modernization Committee tried to incentivize members to work together across party lines and geographies that Lorelei thought was particularly significant was the return of community grants.  These, she explained, used to be called "earmarks."  Earmarks were discontinued entirely in 2012 after some scandalous corruption cases. The Modernization Committee brought them back with ethic rules around them, so they can't be used for representatives' family projects or for private corporate projects. As a result,

A considerable amount of money now is going out as determined by communities. Members work with their community to apply for money in the appropriations process. But the issues and the projects themselves come from the communities.  It's the closest thing we're going to get to participatory budgeting in the United States. ... Anybody who's listening to this, if you do a search on your member's name and community grants, you'll see what's being funded in your district right now. . . .

It's great. If Americans get more actual feedback and see themselves and their voice and their priorities, at least being recognized in the deliberative process of Congress, and then maybe get a community center or a new road or a bridge or a new firehouse or a hospital extension, like the mental health center in my hometown in New Mexico, they'll think, "Wow, there's something that's working there." ...

We should keep building and building and building, so that far more of the budget is determined by local communities. It's a huge step forward. To me, that's really the most significant thing we did with the Modernization Committee was bring back this idea of member-directed spending, this time with ethics rules around it. 

Technology and Congressional Funding

Some of the Committee recommendations that have not yet been fully implemented involve adoption of modern technology in Congress.  Part of the reason is lack of funding. Lorelei reflected that,

I testified three years ago in front of the Appropriations Committee on Congress and Technology, and I did a little research. That year, Americans spent more on "Hamilton the Musical" tickets than on the entire technology system of the most powerful legislature in the world. There's something deeply wrong with that, that we are fine singing and dancing about civics, but we don't want to pay for it.

I hold the American people equally responsible to Congress. It's a two-way street. We have to have a little love and compassion in our hearts for this old institution. There's no way it can live its best life when it is underfunded. It's still right now only at 1990 levels of capacity. Committees are still in 1975. Every time members try to raise the funds, to appropriate more money for the legislative branch, they get accused of feathering their own nests.

And in many ways, it is a thankless job.  

They have to maintain two households. ... You have to get on a plane and switch planes at midnight in Denver and sit in airplanes and hotels and you're away from your family and your pets and everything you love. And then you come here and get screamed at and don't get work done. ...  

We need to figure out a different set of incentives and implement them system-wide. Because right now we've got a systemic problem that is degrading the position [of Congressional representative].

Members are getting 300% more death threats right now than they did before January 6th.  You've got really great members retiring right now and they're polite and they don't say why, but I know part of it's because it's just not worth it anymore. 

In addition to lack of funding, improving technology involves surprising legal obstacles.

For Congress to get a cloud system like the rest of us have on our phones, it's a constitutional issue. It's a separation of powers issue. So the executive branch and the legislative branch are not allowed to be in each other's business. And so you can't just have a common cloud at Amazon and get it off the shelf because then you can subpoena Amazon to get Congress's information. And so all the information has been kept on site. Literally in 441 closets on the Hill.

People have their own servers. So simply creating a unified correspondence management system is something we're working on. Things like a collaborative calendar, like a doodle for Congress. That had to go through law to create a collaborative calendar. So when you don't see members showing up for their hearings, it's not because they're having a beer down at the steakhouse. It's because they are scheduled three times in one time slot. .. So again, it just defeats the deliberative process, because as you know, you need to be present in the room, listening, responding, synthesizing for the hour and a half that the hearing lasts.

Despite all these obstacles, Congress does get a lot more done than most of us realize.  It's just hidden — the media only covers the debacles. As Lorelei explained, 

We are in this civic memory hole. And Congress is trying to compete with everything from TikTok to Facebook to Netflix, and everything else. I feel like there's a lot of content in Congress that could be produced much more interestingly. I always think about the incredible amount of work that goes into testimony of witnesses. And it's all sort of hidden. ...

One of the things I love about the United States, and I realized this after living abroad, is we do a lot of the basic R&D for the world, and we share it with everyone for free. It's such a great quality that we have. So if we want to keep doing that in the age of data, we need to make sure that that information we're created is public, auditable, and accountable, because it's a democracy. It is available to everyone and is a foundational data training model for democracies and other countries that want freedom.


I observed that I thought that hyper-polarization is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, threat to democracy in the United States right now, and I wondered if these Congressional changes would affect that.  Lorelei's response was "absolutely!" But to do, that, she said, "Congress needs to develop trustworthy, productive partnerships with civil society." The community grants are one way they have done that. They also need to make it abundantly clear that violence in the public square is absolutely unacceptable.  America cannot be governed by violence and intimidation, as she personally experienced in East Germany and Russia, years ago.

I feel like what we've been missing ... is that we don't have a very defined sense of a long view of how you create and maintain a peaceful society that marginalizes deviance like violence early on, including wealth disparity, but [also] access to violence, normalization of violence as a decision rule, things like intimidation and bullying.

Years ago Lorelei worked on such issues internationally for the World Bank, guiding the Bank's efforts to prevent violent extremism abroad.  They were looking at non-military, non-police-based efforts such as rule of law, education, culture and entertainment.  They were working to create social cohesion so that violence does not have a place.  That is very much needed in the U.S. right now, as we're now on what Lorelei calls "a typical pathway to violent extremism."

Building Civic Bridges Act

Lorelei mentioned that another way Congress could address this issue is by passing the Building Civic Bridges Act (BCBA), which was just introduced in Congress (again) on March 15, 2024. (It was also introduced in the last session, but it failed that time around.) This is bipartisan legislation to "support communities in addressing sources of division by aiding local civic and community organizations. These efforts aim to confront contentious issues and, ultimately, bridge divides." The BCBA was introduced by Derek Kilmer (D) (former Chair of the Modernization Committee) and Andy Barr (R), and co-sponsored by 22 other representatives, half Democrats and half Republicans. Quoting from the BCBA "One Pager,"

The bill would establish a non-partisan pilot program, led by an Office of Civic Bridgebuilding, within AmeriCorps, focused on four core pillars:

  • Administering a competitive grant program to support civic bridgebuilding programs across the nation. Funding will primarily focus on supporting organizations and spaces striving to heal toxic polarization in the United States through civic bridgebuilding efforts;
  • Supporting the training of AmeriCorps members in civic bridgebuilding skills and techniques;
  • Supporting academic research on civic bridgebuilding, civic engagement, and social cohesion; and
  • Activating a public conversation about the importance of civic bridgebuilding by serving a key role as both a convening and coordinating partner to the national civic bridgebuilding movement.

This bill will promote the ability of local communities to tackle sources of division while empowering participants and organizations with a foundation on which they can address contentious issues and ultimately, bridge divides. 

The bill is also supported by a plethora of conflict resolution, civic, university, faith, and business organizations. As Derek Kilmer pointed out in his testimony to the House Education and Workforce Committee on this bill, "the United States spends tens of millions of dollars trying to build bridges and foster social cohesion as a means of strengthening democracy in other countries through the national endowment for democracy. But we do not do that here in America." 

Clearly, we should do this.  Lorelei urged our readers to call or write their congressional representative, asking them to support this bill. (So do we!)

To learn more about the Building Civil Bridges Act, see the Press Release about it on Rep. Derek Kilmer's webpage, and his section-by-section analysis for more details. Here, also is the Fulcrum's article about BCBA. The Resolutionaries' summary of  BCBA also contains a form you can fill out to send a letter to your congressional representative, and they will even figure out who that is for you and send your letter for you if you want),

We talked with Lorelei about many more things that the Modernization Committee did successfully, and things that have not yet been implemented.  You'll learn a lot more about Congress — and why we should, perhaps, be more positive and hopeful about it than most of us are, by watching or reading the transcript of the full video!

Watch/Read Full Video

Lead Photo Credit: US Capitol – Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:United_States_Capitol_west_front_edit2.jpg; Permission: Public Domain; Date Acquired: March 23, 2024

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